William Lane Craig is a Christian philosopher and apologist who has done excellent work in defending the existence of God from atheism. During university, I found his books on natural theology to be enormously helpful and I regularly recommend them to others. For a time, I was even a (small) monthly donor to his ministry. However, I stopped giving to Reasonable Faith because I became concerned about Craig’s view of salvation.
Craig says he believes salvation is by faith apart from works. That’s good.
However, the trouble starts when he defines “faith.” In answer to the question, “What Does It Mean to Have Relationship with God?” Craig says this about faith:
Now “faith,” as the Reformer Martin Luther emphasized, is a multivalent word. At the most basic level, faith involves what Luther called notitia, which is simply cognizance or understanding of a proposition. Next comes what he called assensus, which is assent to the proposition in question. Finally, there is fiducia, which is trust in the relevant person or thing. All three are involved in saving faith. First, there is understanding the great truths of the Gospel, such as that God exists, that I am morally guilty before God, that God sent His Son Jesus Christ to die on my behalf in order to reconcile me to Himself, that forgiveness and moral cleansing are available through Christ, and so on. Next, I must not merely understand but believe these truths. Finally, I must place my trust in Christ as my personal Savior and Lord in order to be saved from sin and separation from God (see here).
You will recognize this as the traditional threefold Protestant definition of faith as notitita, assensus, and fiducia. And regular readers of this blog will immediately suspect the problem, i.e., the word trust or fiducia.
I agree with Gordon H. Clark that this threefold definition of faith is a mistake. Adding fiducia to assensus is a tautology because they mean the same thing. To believe in Jesus for everlasting life is to trust Him for that life. All faith is a combination of understanding and assent. “Trust” adds nothing to it—unless, of course, you define trust to mean something more than believing. And that’s what often happens with works-salvation teachers, i.e., they often define trust to include doing good works or changing your behavior, thereby adding works to the condition of salvation. Is that what Craig does? Notice how he defines trust:
“What does it mean to trust God, and for what?” It means that you place your life, your well-being, wholly in His hands, relying upon Him and Him alone to save you. It is making a whole-hearted commitment to follow Christ as his disciple, to allow him to reshape you to become the kind of person that he wants you to be. It means saying to God, “Not my will, but Thine be done. I am no longer my own man; I am Yours, to be and do what You will” (emphasis added, see here).
Did you see that? According to Craig, trust means making a “commitment to follow Christ as his disciple.” Following Christ means doing works. That’s what “following” means. Regularly readers will immediately see the problem. If trust means doing good works, and trust is a part of faith, then Craig has redefined faith to include doing good works, which makes those works part of the condition of salvation.
If there is any doubt about that conclusion, read what Craig says next:
If you don’t feel led to cultivate a relationship with God…it may be because you’re not yet a regenerate Christian. You may have come only so far in faith as assensus but have not yet reached fiducia. You’ve not yet fallen in love with God, and so your heart is cold toward Him.
For Craig, fiducia (trust) also includes falling in love with God. You can assent to something, and yet not reach the level of saving faith because you lack love. The problem is love is a work. Indeed, it is the supreme work demanded by the law. If loving is a work, and if it is part of Craig’s definition of trusting, then faith means doing good works such as loving. No works, no faith. Once again, we’re back to implicit salvation by works.
I don’t know how Craig reconciles the contradictory claims that 1) we must rely “upon Him and Him alone to save you,” and yet, 2) salvation also depends on you making “a whole-hearted commitment to follow Christ as his disciple” and loving God. Which is it? It seems to me it must be one or the other. Either salvation is entirely by grace, or it is by works, but it cannot be by both. Craig’s position is self-contradictory: We need a Savior because no one follows Christ, and yet, we must follow Christ to be saved.
In another article entitled, “Does Dr. Craig Believe John 3:16?” Craig attempts to defend himself against the charge of teaching works salvation. I say “attempts” because I think his response only makes matters worse for him.
Craig tries to present his position as merely claiming that good works are the logical and necessary result of saving faith, but they are not the sufficient cause of salvation itself. He compares his position to jumping in a pool and getting wet. He believes that saved people necessarily do good works, the way that people who jump in the pool necessarily get wet. But just as getting wet does not cause you to jump in the pool, neither do good works cause you to be saved:
So there’s nothing objectionable about saying that good works are a necessary result of salvation and a condition of salvation in a purely logical sense…The sense in which they are a necessary condition of salvation is purely logical, not causal, and therefore unobjectionable.
If that was Craig’s position, I would agree that he is not teaching works-salvation. Instead, he would be making an error about the inevitability of sanctification in this life. And while that is a serious problem, too, it is not works-salvation.
But recall how Craig defines faith. As we saw in his definition of fiducia, Craig thinks works are part of saving faith itself, and so they do cause you to be saved. Indeed, later in his answer, Craig reaffirms that works are a part of faith:
The Bible is very clear that faith without works is dead. That the person who claims to be a regenerate Christian with saving faith but who experiences no life change, who continues to live in sin, well, John is very explicit. He says he “is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
By quoting James, isn’t Craig denying that you can be eternally saved with a “dead faith”? If so, what makes a faith living? Isn’t it works—the love, commitment, and following that is part of trust?
So, if good works are not only the result of faith but part of what makes faith alive, then works are a condition of salvation.
So, as I see it, works pose a problem for Craig’s gospel in two ways—on the front end, and on the back end.
First, Craig makes work part of his definition of saving faith, and therefore part of the condition of salvation. You need works to have saving faith so that you can be saved at all. That means Craig teaches salvation by works.
Second, Craig thinks that works necessarily follow from saving faith and are, therefore, necessary to prove that you are saved. That means Craig teaches assurance by works.
As Free Grace advocates often argue, that dual emphasis on works utterly destroys the possibility of assurance and leads to a works-salvation mindset.
Instead of simply believing in Jesus for the free gift of everlasting life, those who accept Craig’s evangelism will doubt whether they have loved enough, followed enough, or committed themselves enough to have saving faith to be saved. Furthermore, they will doubt whether they have enough ongoing evidence of good behavior to prove that they are still saved.
Instead of mixing works into his definition of faith, Craig should adopt a consistent faith-alone position, both for salvation and assurance of salvation. Good works have an important purpose in the Christian life—for discipleship, rewards, and most of all, helping our neighbors. But they are not part of the condition of salvation.
If you want philosophical arguments for the existence of God, I still recommend reading William Lane Craig as an apologist for theism. But I genuinely regret that I cannot recommend him as a clear defender of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone for everlasting life.